Managing a family law firm during Covid-19. Part one: Covid-19 has changed the world! - Family Law Partners

Managing a family law firm during Covid-19. Part one: Covid-19 has changed the world!

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The Coronavirus pandemic will likely effect real change in what we do and how we do it. The question for legal firms is how prepared were they for the changes it brought, which it will inevitably bring and how can we adapt now and to whatever the new normal becomes. Quite what that will be, and if or when such a world catastrophe happens again, remains to be seen. And when and if it comes, we must be better prepared. Some firms were better able to manage than others. However, we are seeing casualties in the family law sector and that pattern will increase.

For the moment, and despite the further easing of previous restrictions, in business Directors like myself up and down the country are managing our firms through the inevitable impact it will have.

Let’s face it, even the most prepared legal firms – with the most detailed business continuity policy would have found it hard to imagine what the last few months have been like. We’ve all heard and used numerous times words like ‘unprecedented/challenging/remarkable’ to try and convey the impact Covid-19 has had. And for good reason.

Doom and gloom fill the legal press. Administrator Quantuma, commenting on a national firm’s recent administration said ‘The high fixed cost base and highly leverage model of many law firms leaves them particularly vulnerable to the fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic. We are already seeing many law firms already in serious financial difficulty and unfortunately, this administration will be the first of many.’  These are indeed trying times for many.

However, I want to add another word to the mix: opportunity. But doesn’t that sound insensitive when so many people are struggling and with austerity seemingly back on the agenda for years to come? As business owners and employers, I don’t think so. To the contrary, I think we have a responsibility to put the business in the best position we can, for ourselves and our team. Some will thrive, some will bounce back, some will limp through and for some, it will be the end. What is clear to me is that the firms who have embraced change will be leading the charge and are best placed to survive/thrive.

This health crisis has created a great deal of introspection. Family Law Partners have been no different as we have been reflecting on strategic decisions we made as part of our growth and development (and part of the reflection was reminding ourselves we started in the teeth of a recession in 2011). In this two-part blog I want to touch on some of this reflective thinking with you:

The transformation from office to home work

Working from home is an interesting one. Who could have ever imagined that if you trust your team to work at home they will embrace it. We did!? Our team members have had the ability to work from home before the health crisis struck.

There may be challenges, there may be a period of adjustment, but it can work. I doubt it would have worked for many unless it had been foisted upon them.

If you have heard, said or even thought ‘but how do you know they are working’, you may have the wrong team, or they may have the wrong boss! It can work. It does work.

The reality is we may now be in a process of a transformational shift away from office-based working. Do you really want your staff travelling on public transport, cheek to cheek with others for the next few weeks and months? We don’t.

Will the shift to working from home be permanent? I think that will be an expectation from existing and future employees (one national firm having already shared their intentions in this respect). Speaking to someone recently they were getting up at the crack of dawn to go to the gym before their commute. As they were now working from home, they were still starting work before their normal routine, but now they were getting up two hours later and still have the opportunity to exercise. Quality-of-life! It’s important to many in society and we need to embrace the opportunity to increase our team’s ability to work from home. From our perspective, we need to do so to ensure social distancing in our open-plan environments. How open plan will work going forward remains to be seen, and will be one for the office planners and architects to muse over. Ensuring a productive working environment will be a challenge each of us needs to overcome.

There can be little doubt that many people have found the transition from working in an office-based environment to home a challenge at times. Finding the boundary between work and home is one of my (many) own personal growth points. With pressures of home life, there may be a sense of guilt when you are working and guilt when you are not which needs to be overcome.

We are used to interacting face to face. We are used to having that ability to immediately interact with a colleague. It might be saying yes to a kind request for a cuppa (or correcting a colleague when they say ‘can I get tea?’) or receiving a communication from a lawyer which is not because of an intricate or unique argument they are advancing, but because they are talking gibberish (yes, we have all seen those letters!). As I put it to the team, sometimes you just need someone to tell you that two and two is four. I’ve missed that and to be frank, Zoom, Slack, Teams or whatever other medium is used, is not the same. And if it’s not the same for us, think about the clients. Clients first, always is our mantra.

Cognisant of the additional impact working at home was going to have on everybody, but particularly those with young children or others to look after, we immediately increased the reflective practice the team have from monthly to fortnightly. The feedback I receive (in general terms, i.e. how effective the meetings are) has been that the emphasis has started to shift back to how work is impacting upon them rather than it being home life/Covid-19. I thought that was quite an interesting shift, albeit it has taken a number of weeks to happen.

I’ve been having a dialogue with a potential new team member for some time. One of the very interesting aspects of the chats we have continued to have is how they have found it much easier than they had expected to not only work from home but also to not have that direct secretarial support that they had been wedded to throughout their career. And they have started to see tech as a friend, not a foe. They were forced to work differently and it worked for them. I also have a colleague who had always resisted the idea of working from home. They have had numerous challenges, but have still proved to themselves that it is possible.

Two paces: dead slow and stop!

This brings me to another bugbear: decision-making. Many firms are far too inefficient and are incapable of making quick decisions. Legal firms are full of risk-averse individuals and there are always reasons why something shouldn’t be done rather than seeing it as an opportunity to be taken. It’s not about being cavalier. Far from it. It’s about making sure that you have processes in place to make quick decisions where risk is appropriately managed. Many firms miss opportunities because it takes too long from the idea to the decision and to the implementation. By that point, the world’s moved on. Departments compete against one another for resources like chicks in a nest squawking for food, each one is only concerned for their own good, rather than the family as a whole. And the parents having to share resources round to keep everybody happy.

I think many lawyers will want to see change and see it happen quickly. If not, I believe we are going to see a move away from full-service firms. I think that this is really likely just as we saw a shift a number of years ago with many family law firms splitting off from larger organisations. The advent of firms being consultant based will become more prevalent.

We have offered the consultancy option since we started and it works really well for our consultants. It provides the freedom to do what they want or need to do and to work. It’s also great for working parents. If this is of interest to you, I’d be very happy to talk (confidentially of course).

For me, the move away from a twenty-something partner firm can be described in one word: liberating. A decision at 9.00 am implemented at 9.01am. How long does approval take in your firm?

Paperless or paper-light

We made the decision to be as paperless as we could be from day one (full disclosure – the notes that I jotted down before putting this blog together were in my Black ‘n’ Red notebook). However, our files are electronically stored and so for us the transition to everyone suddenly working from home, whether in the ops team or legal team, was a seamless transition.

With the move to online hearings, the court are now requiring electronic bundles. Many barristers transitioned to paperless working long ago.

I doubt we will ever be entirely paperless (as my notebook proves!) but what we didn’t have was all the issues I have heard about with the rush to get teams up and running from home. I have heard some horror stories about how some firms transitioned. Firms who were unable to get their teams up and running. Firms who couldn’t make phone calls because they do not have enough office mobiles (the firm in question was a national firm and should have known better), physical files which have to be transported back-and-forth or, in some cases, simply left around the house (the Data Commissioner will be rubbing his hands with the work this may create!). IT departments stretching every sinew to get teams operational.

For us, nothing changed. Admittedly, one or two of the operations team had to have access to a secure device at home, but other than that everyone was able to work as they had always worked in terms of access to the files. Calls by VOIP or office mobiles.

The one word I would use to describe the transition for us from a practical and logistical perspective to working from home was seamless.

Be kind

Kindness is an underused word at this time. There is kindness to the team, kindness to the owners and kindness to the business. All three need to be considered as part of any decision-making process. We want to be defined by all three at the end of this period. Will it buy goodwill? Quite frankly, I hope it’s there in bucket loads already and if not, we have misjudged our team. And let’s not forget our raison d’etre! Our clients. Let’s be kind to them and listen and hear them and work with them to help them navigate their challenges.

But I think there are plenty of firms who will not be kind. Plenty of firms who will be panicking. Firms who will be so focused on financial performance that those able to generate income will be driven even harder to make up for those on furlough or those in departments where work has slowed down or simply ground to a halt. We see this as a real opportunity. For example, our consultant model enables experienced and those with some entrepreneurial spirit to plug into the firm and yet be part of the team. To be supported and very much seen as one of the team, not a collection of individuals working under a banner.

We’ve had a number of conversations with people who are being treated poorly. We absolutely get the panic that may be coursing through the decision-makers veins in firms, but we strongly believe it’s a time for calm. It’s certainly a time for as much transparency and communication with the team as possible. We tried to let the team know what we’re doing at every single step so that there are no surprises or concerns. We aren’t perfect, no one is. But we don’t want people worrying. Kindness and consideration are at the heart of everything we try and do.

No man (or woman or firm) is an island

We will not be alone in having regular all team zoom calls. There is no agenda. There is no hidden agenda. It’s just checking in with one another to see how we are. It’s seeing a friendly face or marvelling at the new background one colleague, in particular, manages to set for each call they are on.

We’ve created a ‘Covid-19’ team to make key decisions and as well as a weekly catch up’s via zoom for about two hours we are in constant contact with one another (why the WhatsApp group is entitled ‘backcombing the hairball’ is another story for which Bob Mortimer and Train Guy can be blamed!).

We were fortunate in having worked with an external business consultant for a couple of years before the crisis occurred. She has brought her non-legal, but otherwise extensive business experience to the team. What a breath of fresh air having a non-lawyer is (in fairness it is something we have done since we started the firm). Significantly, we don’t just get the advice, but we follow it. No concept of ‘only lawyers know how to run a law firm’. It’s a business. It needs to be run as a business.

What our business adviser brings is objectivity. And what we wanted her to bring to us was a sense of accountability on behalf of the owners for the good of the firm (rather than us reverting to what might be our usual default position of accepting if a particular project may have slipped because of other pressures). Short sprints have been the key to get projects up and running and implemented. Focused action points. Ownership. Accountability. And yet progress, fun, learning new skills and being rewarded by implementing and actioning the advice. Significantly, seeing how the help we get improves the bottom line, with this then enabling us to fund what is, in effect, a start-up tech company.

Don’t let your ego hold you back. Don’t allow yourself to be paralysed by the fact that only lawyers can make decisions or that there are people out there who know a lot more than you. Surround yourself with the best advice. Get the support you need from people you can trust. And be prepared to implement the advice.

Marketing is always an important part of any businesses spend and it is no different for us. But how many firms have cut their budget when they probably need to be increasing it. For us, making the most of blogs, vlogs, social media and the like has been managed by our external consultants no differently than before. Strategic and planned. We have wanted to ensure that we share the information which is valuable to the public and judging by the comments on some of the recent blogs we have achieved that objective. But again, the key is to have people who are prepared to challenge you without fear or favour. But if you work with people you trust, I quite accept it’s much easier to accept their recommendations. Let the experts guide you.

If you would like to talk to me in confidence about your personal experience at this time I’d be very happy to hear from you and arrange a time to speak or Zoom: [email protected]

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